Out with the Old, In with the New
Axolotl or Ambystoma mexicanum: A neotenic aquatic salamander that can fully regenerate limbs and even other organs.
Wallace Tian was very very rich, but also very sick and very old. A hundred and eighty-seven years old. His life had been stretched as far as rejuvenation science could take it, but medicine had its limits even for the third wealthiest man in the world. All his property holdings, companies, investments, ingots, and contacts could not buy him what he most desired, a new healthy body. And now his doctor was talking to him about making his final days as comfortable as possible, as he spoke to him in his penthouse bedroom on the hundred and thirtieth floor of Tian’s headquarters building. In truth, Tian did not look his age as he sat propped up on his bed. His face and body could easily have been taken for that of a man in his early seventies. But the organs inside the skin were what counted.
“Mr. Tian—Wallace—may I call you Wallace since we’ve known each other for decades? I’m going to be frank. I’m afraid there isn’t anything further that medical rejuvenation science can offer you. At some point, the body makes its own decisions.”
“Damn it Bren, I sunk a lot of money into your institute and now you’re telling me that I made a bad investment?”
“Wallace, remember you’ve already lived far beyond the norm, thanks to the research that you’ve so generously supported at the institute named after you.”
“But now you’re saying that I have at most six months to live?”
“Yes, and remember that’s just an estimate.”
“And you expect me to just go quietly into the night, Bren?”
“I can see that you’re not happy.”
“Very perceptive of you. Of course I’m not!”
“I’m being frank with you, Wallace, because even though I know you are a person who is meticulous in your business and personal dealings, I wanted to give you time to tie up any loose ends if there are any.”
“Huh! Including a further contribution to your institute I suppose?”
“You’ve been our most generous supporter which I’ve always appreciated. No, only if you wish to.”
“You’ve got nothing more to offer? Even experimental? Even work that hasn’t gone to human trial?”
“No, nothing that I could ethically recommend.”
“‘Nothing that you could ethically recommend.’ What exactly do you mean by that, Bren?” Tian leaned forward. He motioned for his attendants to leave the room.
Bren waited until they were alone before speaking. “Exactly what that sounds like. Nothing that is ready for human trial.”
“Don’t make this like pulling teeth, Bren. What exactly do you have in your laboratories that is not ready for human trial?”
“It’s all at an early stage of investigation. We’ve just started to see if it works on larger mammals.”
“For God’s sake Bren, stop beating around the bush. What do you have!”
“Okay. We’ve always known that many non-mammalian vertebrates have the ability to regenerate limbs. And internal organs, partially. Even in humans, our liver can regenerate after a part of it is removed. A very well studied animal for example is the axolotl, a neotenic salamander.”
“A kind of salamander, but that doesn’t matter. The question is why aren’t humans and other mammals able to do the same thing? Dr. Tom Amahde, whom I introduced you to on a past visit to the institute, wondered if perhaps rejuvenation could be approached from a different angle and began to look into this question. For example, a planarian worm can be cut into many pieces and each piece will become a new worm. On the other hand, if an earthworm is cut in two, the head end will grow a new tail, but the tail end will not grow a new head and it will die. Why the difference?”
“Tom started with the premise that regeneration would proceed if it wasn’t stopped. He began to look for what could be stopping it and found that there seems to be a common mechanism working widely across many different kinds of animals, vertebrate and invertebrate. And he’s found a way to unblock it so that regeneration can proceed.”
“Why would nature have a mechanism to stop what would seem to be a great advantage?”
“Good question, and Tom doesn’t know. He thinks it may be related to controlling cancer development.”
“So you are on to something that will renew organs?”
“That may regenerate limbs and yes, organs.”
“What’s the catch, if any?”
“The catch is the difference between renew and regenerate.”
“What Tom found is a family of proteins that removes the inhibition to fully replacing damaged or missing organs. In other words, whatever is regenerated must be first injured or partially removed.”
“You mean it cannot be simply injected to act as a fountain of youth?”
“That is correct. It will not make organs young again if they are undamaged.”
“But you have told me my problem is that my organs are irreversibly damaged and are basically running down. So why wouldn’t it work for me?”
“We’ve tried giving it to aging animals and it doesn’t do anything. It only responds to acute injury. That means all organs and bodily structures to be regenerated would have to be excised or seriously maimed.”
“How far along are you?”
“Tom has shown it works in pigs. He is starting to try it on primates.”
“So far, and I emphasize that it is early in the program, it seems to work.”
Tian looked out the ceiling-to-floor window at the early-darkening winter sky. “So close,” he finally said. Bren said nothing.
“And now I’m going to die in six months. There’s no way my time can be stretched until this work is further along?”
“I’m afraid you have it right,” said Bren.
Tian lay back in his bed and closed his eyes. Bren looked out into the night.
After a long, long silence, Tian opened his eyes. “I’ve always been a risk taker and it’s paid off for me. You say this works in pigs and that it may be working in primates.”
“That is correct.”
“I have no options. I’m willing to be your first human guinea pig.”
“Wallace. That’s crazy. It’s too unproven. It’s years away from human trial,” protested Bren.
“You told me I don’t have years. I refuse to just curl up and die without a fight.”
“We don’t even know if it’ll result in cancer.”
“If that happens I expect you to treat it,” said Tian.
“The institutional review board will never even consider it.”
“What if they don’t learn of it? What if I built you a lab in this building? Unlimited budget.”
“If word gets out I’d be crucified. I would lose all standing in the scientific community.”
“What if I gave you a stipend of one billion dollars up front and a second billion on completion of the work?”
“What happens if you don’t make it?” asked Bren.
“You would keep the first billion and the contract will state that if you made an earnest effort and I were to die inspire of your best efforts, you would get the second billion. Two billion should get you a lot of respect.”
“Let me spell out what this would involve,” said Bren. “Tom has found that the minimum amount of organ that has to be removed is fifty percent. Otherwise the process will not be complete. That includes the heart and the brain. During the time that regeneration is proceeding, your body will be on life support until heart and vessels are restored. What will remain of your personhood after your brain regrows is anyone’s guess. You may not be you. And should you not survive, Tom and I might be charged with, at the very least, manslaughter.”
“Then it’s imperative that you and Tom are successful. I’ve also supported the Cranston Neurologic Institute,” said Tian confidently. “They have succeeded in uploading from the brains of monkeys trained in performing intricate tasks into supercomputers, then downloading into naive monkeys that were immediately able to carry out those tasks. They feel confident that they will be able to do the same with human minds. To upload the totality of a person’s memories, personality, habits, intellect and then to download all of it again into another brain! Thrilling stuff. If we proceed, I expect you to work with them so that the proper cortical implants can be installed into my new brain.”
“I think you first need to see in person what Tom’s whole setup looks like before you decide. It’s pretty intimidating,” said Bren. “You will see monkeys and pigs suspended in fluid floating in plexiglass containers with tubes running into their bodies, on full life support. Their heads shaved and closed after their skulls were opened and brains partially excised. Their limbs severed and in various stages of regeneration. Their torsos split from top to bottom so that all their organs could be partially removed before being closed. Of course you would not be able to see how their brains and internal organs were coming along except by scanning.”
“Let’s visit tomorrow,” said Tian.
The next day Wallace Tian’s butler helped him into his full-body “WalkingMan” suit providing the strength and balance stabilizers that allowed him to walk unaided. He was accompanied in three cars by his physician. two medical attendants, chief administrative assistant, and six security personnel for the drive across town to the Tian Biomedical Research Institute where he was meet at the back entrance by Drs. Bren and Amahde.
“The rest of your party should stay behind in this comfortable waiting area,” said Bren. “While we proceed to the laboratory. There’s always the risk of scientific and industrial espionage,” he whispered to Tian.
“And witnesses, eh?” said Tian after the elevator doors closed behind them.
“Well, here’s my lab,” said Amahde as they exited the elevator. They walked up the hall a short distance. Amahde paused for security check by retinal scan and implanted chip in his left forearm before the door slid back and they stepped inside.
Tian looked around. It was as described, with one pig and three monkeys floating in their sealed vats. “This is like a scene from a Frankenstein movie,” he said, unfazed. “But without the bubbling sounds and the bolts of electricity.”
“You’ll notice that the pig has almost fully regrown its legs although they still look a bit foreshortened,” said Amahde. “And here at the scanner you can see that its heart is beating very normally. And here is its brain almost back to normal size.”
“What failures and unforeseen problems?” asked Tian.
“None since the early days,” replied Amahde.
“I want to see the records of those events and hear an explanation about what went wrong,” said Tian.
“Of course,” said Amahde.
A day after the visit to Amanda’s laboratory, Tian summoned Bren. “I’m satisfied that there’s at least a fifty-fifty chance of success,” he told Bren. “Let’s proceed. What will you need to equip a lab in this building? I will clear out the entire one hundred twenty-ninth floor for you. And by the way, if this is successful, let Amahde know that he gets a billion too. Nothing if he fails.”
“How will you explain your sudden absence for the month that the process will require?” asked Bren.
“You just take care of the science and leave my business to me.”
Tian waited impatiently for the transformation of the one hundred twenty-ninth floor. Finally it was done, two months short of the projected six month time limit to his life. “About time,” he said relieved to Bren.
“No last minute second thoughts?” asked Bren.
“None. Let’s get started.”
“Notice how the surgical sites have healed without a trace. His skin is totally unblemished and the age wrinkles are smoothing out, said Amahde as he and Bren looked at Tian’s body floating in its vat. “And it’s only been a week.”
“A hard way to get a facelift.
Hour by hour, day by day, week by week, they watched Tian’s body grow extremities and the monitored the unhindered progress of his internal organs.
Finally the regeneration was complete and Bren and Amahde looked with awe at their handiwork. “He looks like he’s in his twenties! How’s he going to explain that to his company execs? He’ll need wear makeup to look older,” said Amahde.
“Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Before we wake him, we need to check out all his organ systems, expand his lungs, take him off life support, and get that neurosurgical team over from the Cranston to place the cortical implants for his personhood download. Let’s get to work,” said Bren.
The download took the better part of two days, but at last it was done and they cautiously brought Tian back to full awareness. He opened his eyes, blinked several times and smiled broadly. “Bren, Amahde, you pulled it off! I’m back!”
Bren breathed a sigh of relief, “You recognized us. The download worked!”
Tian looked at his arms, the skin free of age spots and smooth with the elasticity of youth. “I want to see myself. Bring a mirror. Unthinking he sat up and then stood. “I’m steady on my feet!” he exclaimed and stood on one leg. “Where’s the mirror?” When it was brought, he stared at himself in silence. “I am truly a young man again,” he finally said. “But with all the knowledge and judgement of my older self.”
“You will need to stay here a while so that the Cranston people can run some tests on you. Psychological, intelligence, memory, to compare with your earlier profile,” said Bren.
“Of course. I have all the time of youth,” said Tian.
It was towards the end of the week of testing that Tian said to Okira, one of the team of psychologists evaluation him, “Every so often I get the feeling that there is something or someone else around, watching me.”
“Tell me about it,” said Okira.
“I first had the feeling maybe three days after I awoke. It seems to be happening more often now.”
“Do you hear voices?”
“No. But sometimes I can almost catch a thought that is not mine.”
“Do you understand the thoughts” asked Okira. Possibly post-traumatic stress-related paranoia, she thought.
“Just in the past two days. They seem to be questions: ‘who am I?’ and ‘who are you?’”
“Do the thoughts seem threatening or do they ask you to do something?”
“No, if anything the feeling associated with them seems to be of bewilderment. Do you think I’m becoming psychotic?” asked Tian, worried.
“When you have gone through what you just did, something that has never happened before, it’s hard to say. I don’t know. Do you sense any danger with them?”
“The team will look at the recording of our meeting and try to figure things out. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
The team met that evening, listened to Okira and watched the recorded interview. “So what do you think?” Okra asked.
The discussion went around the table. Most felt, as Okira had, that Tian was experiencing a post-traumatic reaction.
Then Carlson the intern raised his hand. “Is it possible that even though Tian had his entire mind reimplanted into his regenerated brain, that that brain is now separately awakening? A newborn brain in an adult body?”
There was silence, broken only when the discussion leader said, ”My God, what a brilliant thought and something to consider. But how?”
Okira said, “If we’re serious about this we could try putting Tian under deep hypnosis and see if we can contact this second personality. Of course only if Tian is agreeable.”
“What an opportunity! To study what happens if two minds occupy the same brain,” said another. “But is any of this ethical or even legal?”